New things
Technology, science, engineering

19 February 2021

The great AI-scape
Artificial intelligence may help Europe’s first post-Covid holidaymakers take to the skies this year. Residents of Israel and Greece with Covid-19 vaccination certificates can take holidays in each other’s countries from as early as 1 April, after their governments struck an AI-powered deal. Israel has vaccinated a greater share of its population than any other after using AI to track and trace high-risk patients. And in Greece, an AI-led system can now identify which travellers to admit, and which to test. Question: could Britain’s prowess in AI help restart its desperate travel sector too? That’s one to put to Greek and Israeli government representatives at the Tortoise AI Network next Tuesday.

18 February 2021

Noise from the red planet
Hot on the heels of UAE’s Hope probe and China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft, NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to touch down on Mars just before 9pm this evening (UK time). It’ll enter the planet’s atmosphere at over 12,000 mph, before being lowered into a 28 mile-wide crater by a separate mini-mother ship. David Bowie sang about Life on Mars, and Elon Musk imagines it. The excitement of this mission is that we might be able to hearwhat it would be like. The rover is equipped with two microphones, which will try to record audio from the red planet. Note: because Mars has a different atmosphere, a normal conversation here would be quieter and more muffled there. If you want to know what “Clair de Lune” would sound like if you put a baby grand on Mars, close your eyes and let Nasa fill your heart with wonder.

17 FEBRUARY 2021

Bag bottleneck?
You can make vaccines in steel vats, or you can make them in huge, sterile 2,000-litre plastic bags. The bags are thrown out after one use and the FT says there’s a risk that vaccine-makers will run out of them. In the same story we learn that supplies of lipid nanoparticles, essential for the new generation of mRNA vaccines, are also running low. Both are made by, among other firms, Merck. Genuine question: couldn’t Merck have foreseen skyrocketing demand for both products last year, and met it?

16 February 2021

Free speech on Facebook
Facebook’s Oversight Board, a sort-of semi-independent body, is set to announce whether it plans ever to allow former president Donald Trump to reclaim his Facebook pages. I have to confess to feeling that the world has felt much calmer since his ability to continually rap at the window was finally switched off. 

15 FEBRUARY 2021

In office vs out
Last week we mentioned a Twitter thread about trends in working from home (WFH). It was gung-ho. We were all going to be WFH most of the time even after Covid. So now, the reality check. The FT’s Pilita Clark has had a chat with Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom, who in turn has surveyed thousands of people on the pluses and minuses of WFH and two minuses stand out. First, “mixed mode” doesn’t work. You can’t split teams between home and office because those at home miss crucial gossip round the water-cooler. Second, there’s an inevitable bias towards those most visible in the office when it comes to promotions, and that will disadvantage women with young children if they take more advantage of new WFH provisions – as they “almost certainly” will, Clark writes. At any rate, that was the finding of a Chinese case study which Bloom cited. More case studies needed.